In the fall of 1944, as ‘Monty’ obsessed about a bridge too far, Canadian units fought to secure Europe’s largest port
The date was Oct. 13, 1944, and Canada’s 1st Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), was paying the price for having launched an attack on Friday the 13th. A gray dawn broke as Companies B and C (the latter 30 minutes behind schedule) advanced in the open across a thousand yards of Dutch polder—sodden fields of beets maturing on land reclaimed from the sea. At the railway embankment north of the polder, they planned to wheel left to the station at Woensdrecht, their objective. Pinned down by German artillery, mortars and machine-gun fire they never got out of the field.
In the late afternoon Companies A and D were ordered to repeat the futile maneuver. Observing from a barn roof, the regimental intelligence officer reported simply, “The companies are being annihilated.” By the time the sun went down, the Black Watch had left 56 kilted Highlanders dead between the beet tops, another 62 wounded men had passed through the regimental aid post, and 27 more had been captured. Though an extreme example, the Highlanders’ “Black Friday” was illustrative of the deadly, semiaquatic campaign the Canadian First Army slogged through in the fall of 1944.
For seven weeks following D-Day the German front in Normandy held firm. By mid-July 1944 British and Canadian forces had only just captured Caen, their original D-Day objective. Meanwhile, the U.S. First Army remained tangled in the bocage—pastureland bounded by hedgerows, dense woods and narrow lanes. The Allies were far behind their projected schedule.
Launched on July 25, Operation Cobra changed all that. The German left flank collapsed under the weight of the U.S. First Army. Then, at noon on August 1, the Allies unleashed the U.S. Third Army under Lt. Gen. George S. Patton. By early September much of France, Belgium and Luxembourg had been liberated, as armored divisions pushed back the Germans dozens of miles a day. Suddenly, the advance was months ahead of schedule.
In reclaiming territory at such an accelerated pace, however, the advance Allied units outstripped their supply lines and became victims of their very success. “The kind of logistical system that planners had expected would be developed over 233 days,” U.S. Army historian Charles B. MacDonald noted, “obviously could not be created in 48.” The most glaring consequence, MacDonald added, was “the enforced halt of the entire Third Army when it ran out of fuel along the Meuse River from 1 to 6 September.”
Adolf Hitler had already declared the major ports on the continental side of the English Channel “fortresses,” ordering they be held to the bitter end. Despite the Allies’ headlong advance the Germans still held Le Havre, Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais. The war had reached the very borders of the Third Reich, yet Allied forces were still being supplied from Normandy, hundreds of miles behind the front. With the French railway network heavily damaged, the burden that fell on vehicular traffic was overwhelming, despite the heroic efforts of truckers of the “Red Ball Express,” who for 83 days transported some 12,500 tons of supplies daily.
On September 4 newly promoted British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery—who had resumed command of the 21st Army Group, then pushing northeast along the channel—was presented with an unexpected gift. Belgian resistance fighters overwhelmed the defenders of Antwerp’s port before the enemy was able to destroy the docks. Suddenly, the largest port in western Europe, within 100 miles of the German border, was in British hands and intact. There was, however, one significant catch: Antwerp is at the head of the Scheldt estuary, 50 miles inland. Until the banks of the estuary were cleared of German forces, its coastal guns silenced and its waters swept of mines, Antwerp’s massive piers and quays would not welcome a single Allied supply ship.
Throughout the August advance from Normandy the Canadian First Army’s left sleeve had brushed the channel coast, so to it fell the job of clearing the Scheldt. But securing the estuary was only one of multiple tasks facing First Army. Its constituent units remained busy all along the coast through September. German-occupied Boulogne didn’t fall until September 22, while Calais held out a week longer.
Moreover, on its right flank First Army was being drawn away from the Scheldt. Through mid-September Montgomery was obsessed with planning toward Operation Market Garden—the airborne and ground assault intended to capture a series of nine bridges through Holland, the last crossing the Rhine at Arnhem. The preparations pulled British divisions east, compelling the Canadians to concentrate their forces to the northeast, away from the estuary.
The massive amounts of fuel and ammunition required for Market Garden also made First Army a poorer cousin in terms of supply. Until mid-October Canadian artillery units often found themselves rationing shells due to shortages. In terms of focus, Montgomery neglected the stark truth that Antwerp’s world-class port facilities were useless while the estuary remained in German hands.
On October 9 General Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered Montgomery to act on “the supreme importance of Antwerp.” A week later Montgomery finally told First Army that freeing the estuary to enable full Allied access to Antwerp was the Canadian unit’s primary priority.
The depleted frontline infantry companies were painfully aware of their second-class status in Montgomery’s estimation. An October 16 entry in the war diary of the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade (5 CIB) lamented, “Cannot understand why they do not put more troops in the area and finish the job once and for all instead of playing about, shifting first one battalion and then the other.” Dispersed, short of infantry and artillery, exhausted and undersupplied, First Army’s spearheads confronted a task presenting few tactical options and to be fought on a waterlogged battlefield offering untold advantages to the defender.
The Scheldt estuary resembles a crude trident. The gaps between the spears of the trident are the Western and Eastern Scheldt estuaries. The lower tine of the trident is the southernmost strip of the Dutch province of Zeeland—dubbed by war planners the “Breskens Pocket,” after its principal settlement. It runs along the south shore of the Western Scheldt. Dominating the middle tine, between the Western and Eastern Scheldt, is South Beveland. Farther west a narrow causeway connected South Beveland and Walcheren Island (since linked by polders and a dam). The principal port on the north shore of the Eastern Scheldt, the final tine of the trident, is Bergen op Zoom. The Canadians had to clear each tine of the Scheldt trident before the Allies could open Antwerp for business.
On September 13 the Canadian Algonquin Regiment attempted to cross the canals on the southern boundary of the Breskens Pocket. The obstacle was significant. The attackers had to cross the Canal de Dérivation de la Lys, portage the boats across a intervening dike and then paddle across the Leopold Canal to assault the opposite bank. Aboard assault boats carried and crewed by the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, the Algonquins managed to cross just southeast of the hamlet of Molentje, the companies abreast. By midafternoon on the 14th German counterattacks had pushed them back across both waterways, and through month’s end the front settled along the canals.
As October approached, the Canadians planned a four-part operation. Their first objective was the Breskens Pocket. Simultaneously, units driving north from Antwerp would cut off South Beveland and then pivot east to occupy it. Additional forces were detailed to drive north and then west from Woensdrecht, clearing the north shore of the Eastern Scheldt and occupying Bergen op Zoom. When the Canadian units met those three preconditions, British records state, the campaign would conclude with a “seaborne combined operation, involving, from this army, 4 SS [Special Service] Brigade launched against the SW coast of Walcheren Island…in conjunction with an attack launched from [South] Beveland.”
The Germans were acutely aware of the importance of denying Antwerp to the Allies. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Hitler’s commander in the West, emphasized that point in orders to General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen of the Fifteenth Army: “Enemy supplies and, therefore, his ability to fight [are] limited by the stubborn defense of the harbor, as intelligence reports prove. The attempt of the enemy to occupy the Western Scheldt in order to obtain the free use of the harbor of Antwerp must be resisted to the utmost.” On October 7 von Zangen in turn admonished his officers: “After overrunning the Scheldt fortifications, the [Allies] would finally be in a position to land great masses of materiel in a large and completely protected harbor. With this materiel they might deliver a death blow to the north German plateau and to Berlin before the onset of winter.”
The terrain dictated operational plans and prescribed tactics. Flat as a pancake, the land lay mostly below sea level, though a system of dikes and canals had reclaimed much of it. According to First Army commander Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds, “The low-lying fields were a honeycomb of polders, often flooded, affording scanty cover to attacking troops but enabling the defenders to dig in at the base of the dikes with comparative immunity from artillery fire.” Wheeled vehicles were almost useless. Even tracked vehicles were largely restricted to the handful of roads atop the dikes, most of which were the width of a single vehicle and left those crossing visible for miles.
To make the best of offensive operations in this morass, First Army took to the water, employing every available amphibious vehicle in the Allied arsenal. Among those the Canadians used was the U.S. M29 Weasel, a tracked amphibian with a payload approximating that of a jeep. Exerting less ground pressure than a man’s foot, fully amphibious and propelled on land and water by its tracks, it was an ideal vehicle for the conditions. The Canadians made effective use of the American LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked), the up-gunned version of which was known as the Buffalo and saw widespread use in the Pacific, as well as the LCA (Landing Craft, Assault). They also turned to a massive British eight-wheeled all-terrain vehicle known as the Terrapin, which boasted a 4-ton payload. Finally came the ubiquitous DUKW, an amphibious modification of the U.S. 2½ ton truck, which had already proven its value in Normandy. Small-scale amphibious warfare characterized the campaign.
The Canadians’ first move was to eliminate the Breskens Pocket, the only landward front, behind the twin obstacles of the Leopold and Dérivation canals. Farther inland the parallel waterways diverged at Strobrugge, and it was east of there the Canadians again took on the Leopold.
Supporting the 7th CIB crossing at dawn on October 6 were 27 Wasps—British-made Mk. IIC Universal Carriers mounting flamethrowers. In pre-battle testing on similar canals, Brig. Gen. Stanley Todd said, “It was discovered that by inclining the carrier partway up the slope of the bank, its flame could be thrown not only against the opposite bank, but beyond it, where enemy slit trenches and dugouts might be expected to be sited.” Additionally, the high trajectory caused the stream of flaming jelly to separate into globules the troops nicknamed “Golden Rain.” Exploiting the fearsome display provided by the Wasps, the attacking companies were able to gain a bridgehead, though they struggled to expand it in the face of stiff German resistance.
Three days later the 9th CIB launched an amphibious assault across the Braakman Inlet, northeast of the 7th CIB bridgehead on the Leopold. Crossing in some 100 vehicles—Terrapins and Buffaloes—the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry established a foothold behind the counterattacking Germans.
“Today the enemy launched a decision-seeking attack on the Breskens bridgehead,” the October 9 German Army Group B situation report acknowledged. “He landed four to five battalions and some tanks on the northeastern tip, establishing a new bridgehead 3 km deep and 6 km wide.” Ten days later the two positions linked up, and the Canadians began pressing the Germans west, steadily shrinking their defensive pocket.
Simultaneously, Canadian troops pushed north to protect Antwerp and sever South Beveland’s connection to the mainland. Opposing their advance was Kampfgruppe Chill, a detachment of the German 85th Infantry Division. Canadian intelligence rated commanding Lt. Gen. Kurt Chill an officer “of great skill and uncommon energy.” His group comprised the remnants of three infantry divisions and five paratroop battalions. It was Kampfgruppe Chill that slaughtered the Black Watch on October 13, “Black Friday.” Rebounding from that fiasco, the Canadians launched a successful attack the following week, sealing off South Beveland.
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division then prepared to press west along the center tine of the Scheldt trident. The principle obstacle was the north-south Beveland Canal. The 6th CIB managed to breach it on October 28, but only after again turning the German flank in another amphibious assault, two days earlier, across the Western Scheldt. In that operation two brigades of the British 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, supplied and maintained by a fleet of 27 Terrapins and 25 LCAs, came ashore in 174 Buffaloes spearheaded by 18 DD Sherman “swimming tanks.” Though the landings helped push the Germans from the Beveland Canal line, flooding constrained operations, and the Germans were able to conduct an orderly withdrawal to Walcheren Island. Still, South Beveland was cleared, and the Allies reached the eastern approach of the causeway to Walcheren on October 31.
Days earlier the 4th Canadian Armored Division (4th CAD) had captured Bergen op Zoom and secured the north shore of the Eastern Scheldt, the third and final tine of the trident. Deployed as two independent brigades, the 4th CAD had launched a long right hook. Overcoming resistance at Wouwse Plantage, on the Zoom River 4 miles east of Bergen op Zoom, Moncel Force—a mixed armor-infantry task force commanded by recently promoted 27-year-old Canadian Brig. Gen. Robert Moncel—had approached the town from the northeast, while a similar force under fellow Brigadier Jim Jefferson attacked from the south. The stage was set for the assault on Walcheren.
The causeway from South Beveland to Walcheren was a mile long and only 40 yards wide. Complicating matters, German engineers had blown a massive crater in the causeway, some 500 yards from Walcheren, which the Canadians would have to fill before their vehicles could cross. To do so they would have to run a gauntlet of fire from ranged-in German mortars and anti-tank guns in camouflaged, hardened positions. With Canadian understatement Colonel C.P. Stacey, chief army historian, described it as “singularly uninviting,” while military historian Mark Zuehlke went further, deeming it a “perfectly engineered killing ground.”
This final stage of the campaign dealt another blow to the Black Watch. Savaged on “Black Friday,” the unit had remained in the line another 18 days, though it was promised time to rest and refit once South Beveland had been cleared. That promise went unkept when superiors ordered the Black Watch to “push a strong fighting patrol on to the other side” of the causeway on October 31.
Black Watch commander Lt. Col. Bruce Ritchie described it as a “monstrous” order, while the unit’s war diarist barely veiled his simmering anger: “This comes as an unpleasant order, as we were definitely informed that we were to go no further than the west end of Zuid [South] Beveland and in fact had been promised a week’s rest once we had done this job.” The action broke the Black Watch. Withdrawn, the regiment was not declared fit for combat again until late February.
It turns out the Black Watch’s sacrifice had been a diversion, its outcome irrelevant. Its fatal rush across the causeway had been a feint, intended to draw German attention away from more critical operations. On November 1 various commando units of the 4th Special Service Brigade, reinforced by the British 155th Infantry Brigade, launched two amphibious assaults across the Western Scheldt against Westkapelle and Vlissingen (Flushing).
By then Allied aerial attacks had destroyed the dikes and flooded much of the island. “For the first time in history,” one newspaper wryly reported, “an island had been ‘sunk’ by airpower.” Westkapelle and Vlissingen on the southwest coast, the eponymously located Middleburg and the enemy-held end of the causeway were the principle German strongpoints still above the waterline.
Given the dearth of potential landing sites, only 550 men of Britain’s 41 Commando, (Royal Marines) went ashore aboard LCAs at Vlissingen, with artillery on the south shore of the estuary providing fire support. Reinforcing the unopposed landing were infantrymen of the 155th Brigade. The combined force quickly took the town but was unable to advance west toward Westkapelle or north toward Middleburg.
Large-scale landings followed at Westkapelle, the assault troops transported by Weasels and Buffaloes launched from LCTs. On the left flank the balance of 41 Commando, supported by tanks, assaulted Westkapelle from the west, aiming to protect the main landings on the other side of the town. Meanwhile, 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando assaulted the town from the east. Once ashore, each force was to advance north. Detailed to secure the landing areas was 48 Commando, while 47 Commando, the easternmost unit, was to drive southeast toward Vlissingen and link up with the 155th. The objectives lay out of range of Allied artillery, but a battleship and two monitors provided devastating fire support.
By November 3 the bridgeheads had established contact, and within a week the assault forces had cleared Walcheren. But while the banks of the Scheldt estuary lay in Allied hands, that only cleared the way for minesweeping and mapping operations, not shipping. Indeed, the first convoy would not enter Antwerp until late November, almost three months after its capture. By December 1 the port was handling 10,000 tons daily.
Following the serendipitous capture of Antwerp’s undamaged port facilities on September 4, Montgomery had frittered away time and Allied resources on Market Garden, while the docks lay idle. Fixated on a British thrust into Germany across a bridge too far, he’d offered inadequate attention, ammunition and personnel to the clearing of the Scheldt estuary. Instead, he’d vainly grasped at a sensational gamble with potential public relations benefits for himself and his 21st Army Group, the unglamorous but essential logistical arguments for activating Antwerp apparently beneath him. The result was Montgomery’s most consequential strategic blunder of World War II. He had forgotten the age-old military axiom, “An army marches on its stomach.”
Bob Gordon is a Canada-based historian whose work has been published in that nation, Britain and the United States. For further reading he recommends Maple Leaf Route: Scheldt, by Terry Copp and Robert Vogel; Tug of War: The Allied Victory That Opened Antwerp, by Denis and Shelagh Whitaker; and Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign, by Mark Zuehlke.